The People of God: The Covenant (Part 1)

The Covenant

The next set of articles in this series on “The People of God” deals with the important idea of a covenant made between God and his people. It has been discussed previously in the articles on “Israel as God’s People”, in which we explored the early background and traditions related to the religious identity of Israel as the people of God. However, in order to gain a proper understanding of the significance of the covenant-concept in this context, we must devote a more detailed study to the subject. The covenant idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is almost completely foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is tyr!B= (b§rî¾), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement.

In fact, there were all sorts of binding agreements and treaties in the ancient Near East, even as there are contracts and agreements in Western society today. They applied to all areas of society and daily life, though we are perhaps best informed of those in the political and diplomatic sphere, being more often preserved as they are in inscriptions and written texts. It is worth distinguishing between two basic categories of agreements noted above: (a) those where the parties are of equal standing, and (b) those between a superior and a subordinate. In the political realm, the latter is often referred to a “suzerainty treaty” or “suzerain-vassal treaty”. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

An early example in the Old Testament of an agreement between more or less equal parties, is found in Genesis 31:44-55, which records the tradition of an agreement between Jacob and Laban. The wording used in verse 44 is “let us cut a binding (agreement), I and you [i.e. between you and me]”, using the common word tyr!B= (cf. above). However, the tradition also preserves an older Semitic term du, pointed in v. 44 by the Masoretes as du@ (±¢¼), but which perhaps should be vocalized as du* (±¹¼), similar to Akkadian ¹d¥/¹d¢ and the cognate word ±ahd in Arabic. The basic denotation of this root is “agreement”, and is thus comparable in meaning with tyr!B=. The word du@ (as pointed in the MT) would more properly refer to a record, or witness, of the agreement, indicated by the stone pillar and heap of stones set up by both parties (vv. 45ff) to mark the covenant bond between them (entailing mutual protection, etc). The term for the heap of stones is called dulg, pointed as du@l=G~ (“heap of [the] witness”), but which scholars such as Albright and Cross (p. 269) would read as du*l=G] (“heap of [the] agreement“).

What is especially unique in ancient Israelite tradition is how the cultural conventions of the Near Eastern “binding agreement” were applied in a special religious (and theological) context—of an agreement made between the people and God. While deities are regularly called upon as witnesses to an agreement (and to punish violators), extra-biblical examples of a binding agreement between human beings and a deity are quite rare. There is, for example, a Phoenician text from Arlsan Tash which includes the statement “The Ancient [±lm = Heb <lu] One has cut a binding (agreement) with us” (cf. Cross, pp. 266-7); but other instances are hard to find. However, the idea is prominent in early Israelite tradition, associated quite strongly with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel (see below).

Some Old Testament scholars refer to this line of tradition as a special “god of the father” agreement; that is to say, a relationship is established between a particular deity and a family, clan, or tribe (headed by a patriarch). The deity actually functions as the head and protector of the clan/tribe, like a “Great Patriarch”; as such, the deity is a fellow kinsman, and can be called variously “father”, “brother”, etc. A good example of this sort of tradition in Genesis is the account in 28:10-22, involving the vision-experience of Jacob at Beth-El (“house of [the] Mighty [One]”); cf. the discussion in Cross, p. 270. The main “covenant” traditions in the book of Genesis, however, and the ones most relevant to the idea of Israel as the people of God, are the Abraham narratives in chapters 15 and 17. It is worth examining each of these in some detail.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term tyr!B= (b§rî¾) appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as tyr!B= yl@u&B^ ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [rk*c*] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both in the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [hq*d*x=] for him”. The noun hq*d*x= (ƒ®d¹qâ) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world.

The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb tr^K* (k¹ra¾), “cut” (cf. on Gen 31:44 above). This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect (cf. above). Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc) who does so. This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

In Part 2, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament, where the religious identity (of Israel) as the “people of God” was given an entirely new meaning.

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